Leveraging Human Networks to Accelerate Learning
By Maya Townsend, April 2009

To make the most of their learning initiati...
people expanded to form a network that, in 29 hours,        requires real learning from a trusted source,”
fixed a problem...
Networking at Merrimack

Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, based in Cambridge, Mass., develops disease treatment options by takin...
Leveraging Networks                                             opportunities for people to share knowledge,
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Leveraging Networks to Accelerate Learning


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To make the most of their learning initiatives, leaders must understand the power of informal workplace networks and know how to leverage them to drive organizational change.

More: http://partneringresources.com/making-organizational-networks-force-learning-innovation/

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Leveraging Networks to Accelerate Learning

  1. 1. Leveraging Human Networks to Accelerate Learning By Maya Townsend, April 2009 To make the most of their learning initiatives, CLOs For years, networks have been the open secret. must understand the power of informal workplace People have known that the grapevine spreads networks and know how to leverage them to drive gossip, conversations on the golf course help people organizational change. advance and the old boys’ network makes things happen. In recent years, technology forced these The executive team of a small, community-based networks out into the open. West Coast hospital received a major wake-up call a year ago. After a string of big wins — instituting best Social networking tools such as LinkedIn and practices, winning external recognition for clinical Facebook now allow people to compile and tap into quality and earning significant profits — executives their networks consciously. While these tools can be learned they had made a strategic misstep that helpful for recruiting, finding expertise and building threatened the very existence of the hospital. connections on virtual teams, they’re just the beginning of what networks can do for organizations. They needed to correct the error. More importantly, they needed to figure out how the misstep occurred Networks have certain qualities and attributes that and learn how to prevent similar strategic errors in the benefit the CLOs who know how to access them. future. “What they missed was that they weren’t Networks diffuse information so quickly that people sharing information or learning together about what can receive messages long before they arrive through the business demanded,” said consultant Dr. Sarah formal channels. Fisk. To help the group see why it made the strategic Network Qualities and Attributes misstep, Fisk conducted a network analysis that showed how information flowed between executives. • Diffuse information quickly. The resulting map confirmed what Fisk suspected: • Connect diverse people quickly and easily. Team members were operating as individuals and • Withstand stress and adapt quickly to change. refraining from collaborating on the issues that • Contain a small number of people with mattered. With that information in front of them, the disproportionate influence. team was able to see the hidden patterns in its interactions and change its behavior. Anklam tells the story about a time in which she needed to connect with someone she knew had This story is just one example of how hidden human sworn off e-mail. Uncertain about how to get in touch networks influence organizational strategy, decision with him, Anklam sent a Twitter message. Within 10 making and innovation without people even being minutes, she had received several suggestions on aware of them. Today, more CLOs are turning to how to get in touch with the person, including one networks to help accelerate learning and change in from the person himself. Her network mobilized the organization. quicker than she had anticipated to get her message to the target. Where Learning Happens Networks connect diverse people quickly and easily. “Networks are where learning happens,” said Patti A 2005 Harvard Business Review article highlighted a Anklam, author of Net Work. Anklam explained that story of a system administrator in the physics employees instinctively create networks of informal department at the University of Trieste who relationships to get things done. They learn who can discovered a vulnerability in the Linux server that solve a problem, provide expertise on a certain could have compromised thousands of files product line, brainstorm new ideas, fix broken worldwide. He contacted his colleagues for help. They processes and give excellent career advice. connected him to a researcher in Atlanta and developers in Australia and California. The chain of
  2. 2. people expanded to form a network that, in 29 hours, requires real learning from a trusted source,” fixed a problem that could have lasted weeks or Stephenson said. “That’s why CLOs don’t need to talk months. to everyone in their organization to achieve success. They only need to tap into 5 percent of their Networks can withstand stress and adapt quickly to organizational networks to make success lasting, but change. According to a Supply & Demand Chain it has to be the right 5 percent of the deeply Executive article, in 2000, a fire at a Philips connected and trusted. If the right 5 percent believe in Electronics plant threatened to significantly delay your message, then everyone else will, too.” delivery of cell phone chips to Nokia. Faced with a potential production hit, Nokia quickly dispatched 30 Networks can be encouraged in any organization, employees to help Philips restore operations. This whether a technology budget is available or not. The wasn’t part of Nokia’s plan — no one could have requirements simply are the desire to leverage human predicted the fire — but the company was able to networks, the willingness to invest time and the ability mobilize staff and integrate into Philips quickly. The to engage others in the process. results were just want Nokia needed: It got its products to market while achieving sales goals for the year. Techniques for Leveraging Human Networks Networks contain a small number of people that have • Network mapping uncovers the flows and proportionately more influence over the network than bottlenecks in information exchange, decision others. This 5-10 percent of individuals, called critical making, expertise and learning in the connectors by organizational anthropologist Karen organization. The resulting network maps visually Stephenson, occupy specific places within networks: depict interactions between departments, divisions and organizations. • Pulse groups bring employees together in real • Hubs are directly connected to many people and, time to share knowledge, identify challenges and as a result, have the ability to disseminate plan actions before presenting proposals to information quickly. Hubs sometimes become executives. This is just one of many non- bottlenecks: people so overwhelmed with technologically dependent methods of leveraging information requests and communications that human networks. their productivity wanes. When this happens, the • Blogs disseminate information across wide ripple effects have a disproportionate affect on networks and provide windows into previously the network and many people feel the results. obscure areas. See Paul Levy’s blog, They help CLOs spread information and runningahospital.blogspot.com, for a good accelerate change by getting messages out example of how one CEO uses this tool. quickly and effectively across a wide network of • Shared work spaces include virtual meeting individuals. rooms, knowledge repositories, project planning and discussion sites for dispersed teams. • Gatekeepers stand at the intersection between • Web and videoconferencing allow real-time, parts of the organization or areas of expertise. visually connected meetings across geographies They can be the managers who, for sake of and time zones. control, prohibit anyone from working with their • Knowledge repositories provide online, direct reports without them present. They can be searchable libraries and discussion forums for the executives who shield their organizations people across an enterprise or, in some cases, from abusive colleagues. Or they can simply be across supply chains. Teams can develop their subject matter experts who can easily and quickly own knowledge repositories through wikis. access people in a certain field of knowledge. • Social networking tools provide ways of connecting people with common interests, • Pulse-takers are the covert influencers within backgrounds or organizational affiliations. networks. They’re often more knowing than Companies are beginning to create home-grown known, and they connect with others applications and adapt commercial applications strategically. They can be the Machiavellian, to create internal knowledge directories and behind-the-scenes players or quietly influential facilitate connections between employees. informal leaders who people turn to during times • Prediction markets use crowd sourcing to predict of uncertainty. These are the people CLOs want product, service and industry direction, as well as to have on their side during major change topics for future R&D investments. Companies initiatives because, with just a few actions, they such as IBM have used prediction markets to have the power to accelerate or impede choose new development projects progress. “Any one person or organization can change once, but making change truly sustainable over time
  3. 3. Networking at Merrimack Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, based in Cambridge, Mass., develops disease treatment options by taking a network biology approach to understanding disease. In 2005, the founder and CEO began to worry employees were not collaborating sufficiently. As the company grew, integration became more difficult and the company sought new ways to transfer knowledge and develop internal partnerships. Given the company’s focus on biological networks, it was a natural step for Merrimack to think about its workforce in network terms, as well. Andy Porter, senior director of human resources, said the company started by creating network maps that identified the flow of knowledge in the organization. With the assistance of consultant Bruce Hoppe of Connective Associates, Merrimack created a wiki workspace in which employees added areas of expertise and tagged learning priorities. This information was used to map common areas of expertise across teams. Another map was developed based on seating arrangements. Comparison of the knowledge and seating maps showed there were opportunities for greater integration. The company put major changes in place to encourage collaboration: • Teacher-learner pairs: The wiki helped Merrimack identify who had knowledge and who needed it. By making matches, the company identified and connected teacher-learner pairs, usually from completely different disciplines. • Multidisciplinary teams: In a radical shift from traditional organization design, Merrimack eliminated all departments within R&D. The company learned over time, and through some unwelcome staff departures, that it was better to allow people to choose their own teams. Today, people choose their projects based on research interests. • Peer-to-peer networks: Merrimack actively encouraged people to create informal, self-organizing peer-to-peer networks around areas of interest and expertise. These networks have been effective at leveraging knowledge, streamlining models and encouraging sharing across the organization. One group, focusing on computer modeling, meets every week without any set goals other than to share knowledge and solve problems collectively. People receive advice on thorny issues, avert potential problems and receive coaching from peers. Merrimack is committed to keeping this group, and the other peer-to-peer networks, informal. “If we mess with it and make it too formal, it becomes just another meeting,” Porter said. To embed innovation and knowledge sharing into the organization, Merrimack adopted the credo: “Learning and work have to take place at the same time.” To support this belief, Merrimack invests in core organization skills training that every employee attends each year. This core skills training, focused on giving and receiving feedback, coaching skills, running meetings and seeing systems, provides people with the tools they need to learn while working. Much of the additional learning is integrated into day-to-day work. The results of Merrimack’s efforts have paid off. It’s poised to launch two completely new drugs into clinical trials in back-to-back years, something rarely done by a company of Merrimack’s size. In comparison to industry averages, Merrimack has substantially decreased the amount of time and dollars spent from discovery to entering clinical development with its first two products, while finding new and innovative approaches to disease treatment. Individuals from different disciplines have moved a little closer, and many more now embrace each other’s diverse tools and skills. For instance, more and more biologists are using computational tools previously exclusive to computational modelers. And likewise, more modelers are now integral to designing laboratory experiments. Porter said all HR professionals should learn about how networks can be helpful in their organizations. “There are informal learning groups in the company whether you see them or not,” he said. “Understanding and being able to see networks in your organization gives you a leg up and helps you understand how to accelerate learning. It gives you the opportunity to leverage networks as opposed to letting them happen by chance.”
  4. 4. Leveraging Networks opportunities for people to share knowledge, brainstorm or innovate, try shared work spaces, Web conferencing, knowledge repositories or Networks can be encouraged in any organization, social networking. Prediction markets might be whether a technology budget is available or not. The your tool if you need to draw on the power of the requirements simply are the desire to leverage human group to forecast market needs, evaluate product networks, the willingness to invest time and the ability features or choose research topics. to engage others in the process. Here’s how to get started: 3. Seed the effort. Draw on your critical connectors to launch the effort. Use those key influencers to 1. Get clear on the “why.” What can your help design the project, invite others to organization gain by leveraging its networks? participate, launch the effort and lead the Look beyond rationales that only appeal to the conversations. HR organization. For networks to catch on internally, the business needs to be engaged. 4. Stand back and let the network do its work. What are the company’s strategic goals for the One of the few rules of networks is that control is year? What is the company’s track record for impossible. Networks often will self-organize and achieving similar goals? How could networks grow in unanticipated and delightful ways. To help accelerate the process? overly control a network is to limit what’s most valuable: its ability to adapt, change and invent 2. Identify the venue. There are many options for new possibilities. engaging human networks. If you need to diagnose and understand why networks aren’t Maya Townsend, founder of Partnering Resources, operating or optimize existing networks, network specializes in helping leaders identify and leverage mapping or pulse groups might be the right the hidden web of relationships that drives option for you. If you need to disseminate organization performance. information quickly, try blogging. To create